When Primavera Sound began in 2001, it was held in the historic Poble Espanyol – or ‘Spanish Village’. The village was built for the International Exhibition of 1929 to present a sort of collage-cum-mock village on what dictator Primo de Rivera saw as his idyllic vision of Spain. It was also a statement of nationalistic intent by placing ‘Spain’ into the fiercely independent Catalunya.
The 8,000 people who visited Poble Espanyol in 2001 saw 19 acts across five different stages. Twelve years on, around 170,000 people arrive into el Fòrum – a mass of concrete coupled with striking sea views and post-modern architecture – for each of the three days to see over 120 acts for the main festival programme.
It’s a remarkable rise: what began as a way for Catalans to see bands they loved has grown into arguably the most important festival brand in the world, uniting the most significant acts with the most up-and-coming, while also expanding into a Porto edition.
But while Primavera has grown, it would obviously be nothing without the performances. musicOMH caught acts from across the festival to provide a “collage” of the festival’s variety.
Savages Pitchfork Stage
Many talk about Savages’ Joy Division tendencies, but they’re more a post-punk pastiche. The androgynous Jehnny Beth has the look of Ian Curtis but the vocals of Siouxsie Sioux and the authority of Mark E Smith. Some say they’re contrived but their confidence seduces: like Sonic Youth crossed with Gang Of Four, as the track Husbands demonstrates. Even when Gemma Thompson’s guitar cuts out and leaves drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayse Hassan to improvise, they come through magnificently, producing a post-punk-funk instrumental. To quote someone nearby, “It’s nice seeing a band who… give a shit.”
Bob Mould ATP Stage
Five years since his last Primavera, Mould wastes no time: he charges on stage and launches into a Copper Blue section, beginning with a blistering The Act We Act and outstandingly powerful renditions of A Good Idea and Hoover Dam. Mould then plays his some of his recent album Silver Age: “It’ll kick your ass!” he cries. It does; Star Machine and The Descent are played at a lightning pace and the Husker Dü inclusions, particularly set closer It Makes No Sense At All, make this memorable.
Grizzly Bear Primavera Stage
Grizzly Bear arrive at just gone 12.15am when most are drunk, high on something or need a boost. The moving lanterns-cum-strange cocoon lifeforms on stage form a trippy and intriguing backdrop, but the nature of Grizzly Bear’s music means despite sounding pleasant and intricate, it fails to ignite the crowd. When Two Weeks finally arrives it comes as something of a relief, but the scheduling of their set means they fall flat here.
Phoenix Heineken Stage
While Grizzly Bear weren’t made for their late night slot, Phoenix certainly were. Set opener Entertainment delivered an instant statement, with Thomas Mars’ soft vocals contrasting Thomas Hedlund’s booming drums, which don’t drive the song but catapult it. The mid-set Sunskrupt! – a combination of Bankrupt! and Love Like A Sunset from previous album Wolfgang Amadeus – was a highlight, particularly with accompanying confetti canons, while an encore version of Entertainment featuring J Mascis was special. Phoenix are now an almighty, world-class force.
Fuck Buttons ATP Stage
Almost a year on from being unexpectedly showcased to the world through the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, Fuck Buttons returned with a ferocious mixture of old and new. The bass and beats during Surf Solar and Olympians could be felt right in the chest, while the squawking during Colours Move pierced the ears. The appearance of a huge disco ball signalled new material from their upcoming album Slow Focus, which sounds more dance driven than previous work. Still bloody – and terrifically – noisy though.
Mulatu Astatke Rockdelux Auditori
The modest figure of Mulatu Astatke makes him endearing, especially when he twirls his vibraphone beaters in pleasure at the end of the opening composition. But this means your eyes are free to feast on the brilliance of The Heliocentrics; while the set includes the classic Yèkèrmo Sèw, the penultimate composition featuring a variation on Chik Chikka from 2009’s collaboration propels the performance into something extraordinary: the lurking menace in the cello, the double bass played like Thurston Moore and the edginess in the horns are stunning to hear. A truly magnificent set.
Daniel Johnston Rockdelux Auditori
When Johnston shuffles on wearing a Superman t-shirt, the audience hang on his every action, with fawning reactions as he recounts a dream of when he was sentenced to death for attempting suicide. The servile responses throughout raise questions: Is Johnston playing to his image? Should we actually be enjoying this? Or has the alternative fraternity dictated that we must like him? Still, the expanse of the auditorium reveals the simplicity and fragility of Johnston’s music further, with set closer True Love Will Find You In The End an example. Awkward but provocative.
Solange Pitchfork Stage
With having Beyoncé as your sister, it would be understandable if Solange lived in her shadow. Yet she’s artistically different, perhaps even edgier, than her older sibling. Songs like Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work, written in conjunction with Dev Hynes – aka Lightspeed Champion, who also plays guitar alongside – bring with it a contrasting Madonna-cum-new wave edge with tints of R&B. “Put down your camera phones and lose yourselves in the motherfuckin’ moment!” she orders at one point. Most do.
Blur Heineken Stage
Damon Albarn charges around the stage, possessed, up for this. He seems delighted to be here, adding that tonight “is one of those special moments.” Albarn is the life and soul of Blur this evening but Graham Coxon, Alex James and the oft-neglected Dave Rowntree are consummate. The highlight of the set is arguably the 13 section, including Trimm Trabb, Caramel, Coffee And TV and Tender. The usual greatest hits make an appearance, which everyone obviously loves, but that middle section is the most memorable: Blur at their most compelling.
The Knife Primavera Stage
Some have been scathing about The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual tour. Yet for the 3:20am slot, it’s perfect. Beginning like a scene from The Seventh Seal, dancers including Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer are dressed in long black capes while playing large, custom-made ‘percussion instruments’. From there, we get individual interpretative dance routines for each track. It’s understandable why some take umbrage – there’s little ‘live’ music here – but this is up there with Björk in terms of spectacle and originality.
Dexys Rockdelux Auditori
Dexys’ set was plagued with technical problems – Kevin Rowlands’ vocal cuts out regularly, his microphone feeds back and the levels are often all over the place. Yet in the end it doesn’t matter; the joy of seeing Rowlands perform – at one point charging up and down stage like a toddler – the chemistry between him, singer Madeleine Hyland and Pete Williams and the scale of the encore, including a flamenco-inspired Geno and This Is What She’s Like, make this a triumph.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Heineken Stage
“It’s fucking freezing!” bemoans Cave – he’s right, although that’s expected when the stage is next to the sea. Still, the girl who was on the end of his thrusting as he ventured into the crowd was no doubt warmed up. The set is varied; opening with We No Who U R from new album Push The Sky Away, Cave et al then delve into Stagger Lee, Tupelo (“[Elvis] is still burning in my heart,” says Cave on stage) and a highly noteworthy performance of The Mercy Seat. Yet while Cave is the focus of most people’s attention, violinist Warren Ellis stands out with his frenetic energy and impassioned playing. At one point, Cave and Ellis give one another a big bear hug as they revel in the crowd’s delight.
My Bloody Valentine Heineken Stage
One couldn’t help but snigger at those right at the front: “You won’t be so bloody happy later on!” you thought, as ears rang and verged on bleeding. You wonder how My Bloody Valentine could translate in an outdoor environment and, at times, they struggle: the sound is can be incredibly muddy (and that’s saying something). Nevertheless, the m b v material sears through the open air: New You, with Bilinda Butcher’s vocals as sultry as ever, a real highlight, as is Only Tomorrow. Come the inevitable noisy conclusion, the earth shaking beneath you and the sense you were now at Kennedy Space Center watching a rocket launch, meant this was some way to conclude the main festival.
This year’s Primavera has been an unforgettable edition. Primavera’s independent attitude, arguably inspired by Catalunya itself, has taken over the festival world, with the acts embracing its significance, whether through their performances or sheer presence. With a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel already announced to play in 2014, Primavera is without doubt indispensable, hugely important – and utter musical heaven.
Words by David Meller. Photos and video courtesy of Primavera Sound.